Or Nah? is a feature where we watch and review the first episode of a new TV show. We’ll let you know if it’s worth checking out. As always, these reviews are the opinion of the reviewer, but we’ll try to adequately explain why you should or shouldn’t give the show a chance and provide shows for comparison.
What’s It About?
The sixth live-action Star Trek series begins 10 years before Star Trek: TOS during the Starfleet-Klingon cold war. Although it is reportedly in the “prime” timeline of the other series, its aesthetic is resoundingly within the ornate, technologically-elaborate Abramsverse reboot. Rather than following the captain as other premieres have done, “The Vulcan Hello” focuses on Sonequa Martin-Green’s First Officer Michael Burnham, who was raised by Spock’s father Ambassador Sarek after Klingons killed her parents, hinting at raging internal conflicts countered by intellectual promise and an invaluable resource in her connection to the most successful ambassador in the Federation. She serves on the USS Shenzhou under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), a war veteran who yet marvels at the universe and provides grounding and hope for her crew of explorers. The two begin the episode on a pre-warp society planet attempting to aid its endangered residents by re-opening a well undetected before a dust storm settles in.
Mission accomplished, the Shenzhou continues on to a communications relay with a dark spot in it, inspiring Commander Burnham, in the vein of TNG’s Riker, to take a first-hand look against the warning of Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru. Venturing into the array in naught but a space suit, Burnham uncovers a Klingon hiding in an electronic dead zone and the ensuing scuffle leaves him dead and Burnham with near-fatal radiation poisoning. The provocation attracts a large Klingon vessel across the Federation border, and it sits silently while the crew frantically debates its options.
Klingons have always expressed reverence for a good death, but the zealous T’Kuvma, driven by prophecy and the unification of the Klingon houses, is on a whole other level. Decorated with coffins of the fallen, his Sarcophagus Ship is manned by a crew in the most elaborate Klingon garb and makeup to date, presumably in connection with their fanatic beliefs. T’Kuvma is determined to bring forth the destiny of the Torchbearer who will unite the Klingon houses against a common enemy, and as their first Torchbearer was killed on the array, that enemy is now the Federation.
With Admiral Anderson dismissing her concerns and Captain Georgiou resolute in giving diplomacy a chance to breathe, Burnham rushes off the bridge to consult with Sarek by private channel and concludes that they must fire first in accordance with history. Previously, Klingons incurred into Vulcan space and destroyed the first diplomatic ship they encountered; after that, Vulcans fired on any Klingon ship over the boundary, aka “The Vulcan Hello,” eventually earning their respect. Burnham, desperate to avoid the Shenzhou becoming that first sacrificial Federation ship, gets into a public argument with Georgiou and eventually knocks her out with the Vulcan nerve pinch in the captain’s ready room, barreling out to demand the bridge crew fire first. She narrowly fails, Georgiou awaking in time to have her arrested, but it appears she may have been right when dozens of Klingon warships answer the call.
Burnham and Georgiou are well rounded and as likely to act as they are to talk. By the end of the episode, we have a solid handle on their relationship, qualifications, strengths, and weaknesses. I wish that was not as remarkable as it is.
Burnham is a highly-gifted black woman making use of Vulcan discipline, challenging expectations that a third male voice, like Lt. Saru, would be the logical one. She is a refreshing and more relatable take on the “conflicted Vulcan” trope explored in every series, and I can easily think of a dozen women who remind me of her.
Saru’s death-sensing Kelpien is an interesting twist on the requisite empathic bridge officer, not moaning about feeling pain or confusion or lies, only impending death. DARK.
The transporter effect realistically looked like the work in progress it would be, disassembling travelers by photonic flakes in an effect that was, frankly, gnarly as hell. Barclay was right.
The effects. The wardrobe. The sets. The acting. Almost everything.
What Needs Work?
Lighting. Even with the lighting punched all the way up, a lot of details were difficult to see, especially on the Klingon vessel. Maybe that’s by design to cover set seams, but it is exhausting to watch. Unfortunately I’ve read that Jason Isaac’s character Captain Gabriel Lorca has an eye condition that requires sitting in the dark* so it will only get worse.
Although it amuses me that Sarek is a softie, it seems like fanfiction and I am side-eyeing a previously unmentioned “foster sister” scenario for Spock. However, I am willing to give this some room as fans have always wondered what led Sarek to marry only human women. Also, James Frain.
The opening scene between Burnham and Georgiou was rough thanks to the dialogue-as-mission-briefing which would have long been covered prior to launch. Narration like that is clunky and insulting, worthy of lower-brow crime shows, and could have easily been replaced by a voice-over or even scrolling text. Please do not, ever again.
The Klingon design seemed extreme for this historical period, with elements of Star Trek: Beyond’s Krall, Enterprise’s Xindi, and even a little Doctor Who Ice Warriors. They have no hair or eyebrows and more pronounced head ridges than Worf’s generation of Klingons. I can’t follow the evolutionary timeline, considering one group in TOS has no ridges at all! I do admire the makeup work though.
Theme Song. The Star Trek: Discovery title sequence is a blend of Westworld aesthetic with Penny Dreadful notes, capped by TOS musical phrases on either end. Although it thankfully avoids the offensive vocals of Enterprise, the building-the-Federation message is too similar, making it my second least favorite theme.
Despite minor downsides, Star Trek: Discovery’s premiere wasn’t half as bad as The Next Generation‘s and is worth watching. From the solid acting lineup to producers that actually love Star Trek, there is a lot of promise here, although it remains to be seen if that continues in the episodes after Bryan Fuller exited the series due to conflicts with American Gods. The visuals and drama are intense and gripping, and the first episode ends with a true nail biter. If you’re between seasons on a Hulu or Netflix show and are squinting at the extra charge, I daresay it would be worth putting those subscriptions on pause to sample this on CBS All Access.
Watch This If You Like: Star Trek and/or other space shows, Sonequa Martin-Green.
Don’t watch if you: are against paid services, watch other CBS shows. Kidding. Kinda.
All other episodes will be aired on CBS All Access, or, if you are overseas, on Netflix.
Star Trek: Discovery S1E1 Review Score
"The Vulcan Hello"
Starring: Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Jason Isaacs, James Frain